Baltimore, MD: A Call For Empathy

I spent this past Saturday in Baltimore. It was date night, and my girlfriend and I had been planning my first trip to The Charles theater to see Noah Baumbach’s new film for some time. We did this, despite the fact that mere miles from the theater there were over 2,000 people protesting the death of Freddie Gray while he was in police custody.

There is a part of me, as a member of the media, that feels irresponsible for not having attended the protests. Part of my job involves going places and documenting events like these––significant ones, moments in history that leave lasting impressions, events that inspire change. Instead of doing this, I was seeing a movie in a gorgeous historic theater, and afterwards enjoying some tapas with a beautiful woman. Sure, I’ll be reviewing the film (most of my journalism comes in the form of arts criticism anyway), but doing so is decidedly not the type of hard reporting that many others were doing that day.

The part that feels irresponsible for not attending and not covering the hours of peaceful protest that eventually escalated into several isolated violent incidents is particularly strong given the often irresponsible coverage that much of the media has given to the incident. Instead of focusing on the hours of peaceful protesting conducted by several thousand people, the front page of the Baltimore Sun was adorned with an image of two young black men standing on top of a car with its windshield smashed in.

Curiously absent were the images of rival gangs laying aside their differences for the sake of solidarity. Curiously absent were the images and stories of how much of the violence was incited by drunken white folks who, having spent all day at one of the bars around Camden Yards in preparation for the evening’s Orioles game, hurled insults and objects at the protesters. Curiously absent were the stories of how the cars being damaged were driven by people actively attempting to run over protesters. Curiously absent were the stories of protesters attempting to keep police property safe.

I can’t help but feel responsible for not having been there to help get the truth out. I probably won’t be forgiving myself for that any time soon. I kept telling myself it was because I didn’t have an outlet for it (I don’t write for any publication based in Baltimore, which is something I’m looking to change as soon as possible); however, this blog is more than enough of an outlet.

The French thinker Michel Foucault once described what he called the indignity of speaking for others, how we must not place ourselves in the position to speak for another group. I’m a white man possessing an understanding of my own privilege. This was not my story to tell, and I didn’t want to let my own privileged point of view get in the way of that story being told.

I didn’t participate for fear of letting my interest in getting a cool story get in the way of accurately representing the situation. I’m admittedly new to photojournalism and documentary photography, and I was worried that another white guy sticking his camera in the faces of protesters wouldn’t be right. There’s enough poverty and pain porn to go around, I didn’t need to contribute.

However, here I am, two days later, thinking and writing about these incidents. Much of what has spurred me to write this I’ve already outlined––the absurdly skewed coverage from much of the media (major kudos to Baltimore City Paper for being among the few outlets doing spectacular work; and in particular, photo editor J.M. Giordano, who was knocked to the ground and beaten by police)––but that wasn’t everything. Perhaps my biggest source of inspiration here, the driving force behind my joining the conversation, is the way I’ve seen so many of my peers and family members responding on social media.

Much of the response to these violent outbursts has taken the form of “I’m all for peaceful protesting, but….” or, “Animals. This isn’t how you get heard, and it’s unproductive,” and “This is why I hate Baltimore City.” Invariably, these responses are written by white folks nestled comfortably in the suburbs or residing somewhere out of state. Much of this reeks of an inability to empathize that comes from a lack of understanding. Many of these commenters have no way of knowing the realities facing those involved in the Freddie Gray protests––including what it’s like to live in fear of the police or to live in neighborhoods systematically designed to keep you in poverty.

I don’t know what these things are like, either: I’m a white dude who lives in the suburbs of Carroll County. But I acknowledge that these problems do exist and very much define the lives of so many Baltimore residents.

Heck, this entire situation seems rooted in people’s inability to empathize with one another. We have a police force in Baltimore City that allowed a man to die while in their care because they didn’t care enough about his life. We have newscasters and networks reporting on the violence in the city because they don’t care enough about the residents to forego some viewership or clicks for the sake of honest reporting. We have people taking to Facebook and Twitter to denounce people for reaching a breaking point that they themselves are never going to be pushed towards because they simply don’t care enough to try to understand.

There’s a lot to be learned from the events of this past weekend in Baltimore. A lot to be learned about race relations. A lot to be learned about police brutality. A lot to be learned about media representation. But perhaps the most important thing to be learned from the unfortunate events of Saturday evening is a lesson in empathy. It would be too easy to write off the violent end to the protests on Saturday evening as yet more racially motivated violence and be done with it. To quote a good friend of mine, it would be too easy to focus on the fact that there is a lot of anger while ignoring why the anger is there in the first place. It would be too easy to let this incredibly important moment pass by without having any political change come of it.

I love Baltimore City, and look forward to making it my actual home in the near future. There’s an enormous amount of beauty, heart, and character here. Maybe it’s time we started focusing on that.



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